Exclusive interview with Shannon Hodge, executive director of Kingsman Academy PCS

I had the fortunate opportunity recently to speak with Shannon Hodge, the co-founder and executive director of the Kingsman Academy PCS.  Kingsman Academy, of course, is the school that replaced Options PCS in the aftermath of the financial controversies surrounding the former school’s management group.  I asked Ms. Hodge how things were progressing at the charter.

“Things are going very well,” the Kingsman Academy executive director answered without hesitation.  “We are in our second year.  We took extremely seriously what we committed to doing in our charter.  Our goal is to be a national model for the education of children with disabilities.  It is certainly not a straight line from where we started to where we want to be.  I look back at July, 2015, when we opened, and believe it is now much improved.  I can see where we are going and what we have to do to get there.  During the past two years we have learned much about what works with our students and how to adjust to some of the challenges they face.”  These are remarkably inspiring words coming from a leader of a charter school specializing in teaching at-risk young people.  But how she got here is equally extraordinary.

Ms. Hodge explained to me that she had been introduced to the charter as one of the attorneys working for the Hogan Lovells law firm assigned to represent Josh Kern after he became the court-appointed Receiver for Options PCS.  She had applied to be, and was subsequently hired to become, the charter’s executive director during the last year of the previous school’s operation.

It turns out that since the time that she attended Harvard University to obtain her bachelor’s degree, Ms. Hodge’s interests were always split between law and education.  As an only child, Ms. Hodge throughout her life put significant pressure on herself to do well.  So only naturally when in primary and secondary school Ms. Hodge did everything she was told to do and earned almost straight A’s.  From an early age she saw the opportunity that education presented to address inequalities in society.

While her B.A. is in Afro-American studies, Ms. Hodge also completed the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program in which she graduated as a certified teacher.   While Ms. Hodge finished her undergraduate education she also concluded her student teaching in Boston Public Schools, but she quickly realized that she needed additional preparation to work with students with significant needs and challenges.  So she obtained a master’s degree in educational and psychoeducational studies from Purdue University.  In order to learn the administrative side of teaching, the Kingsman Academy executive director accepted a position as a guidance counselor, first in middle school and then in high school in Indiana.  She eventually became head of the department, but when she started she was the first professional African-American hired in the school system.

Ms. Hodge noticed many similarities between her students in Boston and those living in poverty in her high school.  She saw her job as helping her scholars see what was possible for their lives after graduation.  It was at this time that the No Child Left Behind law was being implemented.  Ms. Hodge sadly observed that the law’s testing requirements did not account for the challenges that many students and their schools face.

She decided she wanted to go to graduate school and so obtained her second degree from Harvard in educational administration, planning, and social policy.  She was there working on her doctoral degree when a law class that she was taking convinced her to attend Stanford to pursue her J.D.  After obtaining her law degree, and clerking in Richmond and Chicago, Ms. Hodge joined Hogan Lovells.

Ms. Hodge has come to understand that the District of Columbia students she serves need the most and deserve the greatest effort and energy that the staff can provide.  She learned much from Mr. Kern and greatly appreciates his ability to see past the first five or six levels of an issue.  When she became involved in the school through him she became aware of the firm determination of its talented staff which led her to become convinced there was tremendous potential here.  Ms. Hodge thought she could utilize her skills to join the challenge of advancing the charter’s strategic vision.

The 6th through 12th grade charter currently teaches 246 students:  26 in middle school, 208 in high school, and 12 enrolled in non-public schools.  The student to teacher ratio is 12 to 1.  The school demographics include 88 percent of students considered at-risk. 57 percent possess disabilities, and 62 percent of high school students are over-aged and under-credited.  Ms. Hodge informed me that 17 percent of those attending Kingsman Academy PCS are homeless.  Not known is how many have been incarcerated or otherwise detained within the last 12 months, but it is believed to be at least 10 percent of the student population.  79 percent of the pupils come from Wards 6, 7, and 8.

The breakdown of special education levels at Kingman is as follows:  7 percent are at Level 1, 29 percent are at Level 2, 18 percent are at Level 3, and 47 percent are at Level 4.  This compares to the overall student population in the city as being 36.1 percent at Level 1, 30.5 percent at Level 2, 11.6 percent at Level 3, and 21.9 percent at Level 4.

It was interesting to learn from Ms. Hodge that 43 percent of the student body has no identified disability.  According to the Kingman Academy executive director, in addition to students who may be drawn to the school because of its programming for students with learning or emotional disabilities, the charter attracts families who simply want their children to attend a small school or are familiar with its mission “to provide an individualized and rigorous education in a supportive environment to prepare scholars for post-secondary success and responsible citizenship.”  That mission is carried out through a project-based academic model and a four-tiered system of interventions designed to meet students’ academic, behavior, and engagement needs.

For most of the study body, Kingsman Academy looks like many charters in the city with a Monday through Friday schedule from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.  There are five periods that include subjects such as science, math, Spanish, and humanities.  Each Wednesday morning, students complete electives such as soccer, Community Club, life skills, photography, natural hair, mural arts, and etiquette. Many students participate in ace360, an athletics development program the school designed to prepare student athletes for success after high school. Each Wednesday afternoon there is a half day of professional development for the staff.

For those over-aged, under-credited pupils most at risk of dropping out, Kingsman Academy PCS offers the R.I.S.E. program. The acronym stands for Raising Individual Scholars towards Excellence.  Students participating in R.I.S.E. have before and after school classes and sessions on Saturdays.  The charter has found blended learning to be especially helpful with this population of young people.

In the future, the DC Public Charter School Board’s Alternative Accountability Framework tool will be relied upon to provide a public quality report.  However, Ms. Hodge is not waiting for this measure to develop a high performing organization.  “Success at Kingsman Academy means more than making sure students earn a high school diploma. It means preparing students to lead successful lives after graduation. We want our graduates to thrive in college, in the workforce, or in the military,” the Kingsman Academy executive director related passionately.  “We want them to be active leaders and responsible citizens, to provide for their families, to be lifelong learners. They deserve nothing less.”

Exclusive interview with Keith Gordon, president & CEO of Fight for Children

I had the pleasure recently of sitting down with Keith Gordon, president and chief executive officer of Fight for Children.  Mr. Gordon is no stranger to this organization.  He joined the non-profit in 2015 as the chief operating officer.  The story of how Mr. Gordon became associated with Fight for Children is fascinating.

Mr. Gordon was working in Washington, DC as president of the National Football League Players Incorporated, which is the for-profit subsidiary of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).  He was in charge of all business units including player licensing, sponsorship, marketing, events, and procurement.  In his six years in this role he grew the NFLPI to become a $150 million enterprise.  Also around this interval, Mr. Gordon moved his wife Mary and 18 month old son Matthew to the area from his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, where he soon welcomed a daughter, Mia, to their growing family.  While he absolutely loved the job, he soon found that the travel demands including constant air and train trips became very disruptive to his family life.  As Mr. Gordon says, “my wife and children were growing and learning how to live without me, and I had a choice to make.”  After six years of trekking around the globe on behalf of the NFLPA, Mr. Gordon made a bold decision, announcing that he would leave the NFLPA following the Super Bowl in Phoenix to spend more time with his family.  At that moment, Mr. Gordon did not commit to another firm, opting instead to consult for a variety of organizations while exploring opportunities in the area.

During this period a recruiter contacted him about an opening at Fight for Children for a chief program officer.  Having attended Fight Night over the years, Fight for Children’s annual fundraiser, he was already familiar with the event and parent organization.  He vividly remembers attending Fight Night in 2014 after his conversation with the recruiter, and viewing the fundraiser now through a very different lens – that of a producer. Through his prior experience at the NFLPA and his sports marketing background with several advertising agencies, combined with seven years at the marketing and business operations group at the National Basketball Association (NBA), he began to imagine the opportunity and the strategic direction in which this gala could grow, in particular with Under Armour as the presenting sponsor.

In addition, as if the stars were aligned for the future direction of his career, Mr. Gordon had been active for several years with YPO, a global networking and educational membership community of chief executives.  Fight For Children’s founder, Joseph E. Robert, Jr., was also associated with YPO, along with several of his close friends including Raul Fernandez, the current chairman of the Fight for Children board of directors.  With these connections in place, the recruiter convinced him to have a conversation with Michela English, then president and CEO of Fight for Children.

Ms. English and Mr. Gordon met and had what Mr. Gordon described as “an honest conversation” about where Fight for Children was and where it was going, although not everything was mapped out at that point.  He was hired into the role of chief operating officer as Ms. English recognized the need for a professional manager and business person who could also build upon Mr. Robert’s vision for the entity whose mission is to “fight to ensure low-income children in Washington, D.C. receive a great education and stay healthy so they can learn.”

I inquired of Mr. Gordon what it was like to work with Ms. English, who retired as president and CEO at the end of 2016.  He answered without hesitation.  “The importance of Michela to Fight for Children cannot be overstated,” Mr. Gordon responded forcefully.  “After the passing away of Mr. Robert in December 2011, the company could have simply vanished.  Instead, she provided stability and credibility to the organization, and between Michela and Mr. Fernandez they successfully transitioned a family foundation to a lean, purposeful, smart nonprofit.  She taught me that there is much more that we can do to help people.  Michela has an amazingly positive attitude and outlook.  She has more professional relationships than almost anyone you’ve ever met. Everything she did was intentional in protecting Joe Robert’s legacy as a philanthropist.  For her, it was all about others and she was never self-serving in any manner.”

According to Mr. Gordon, over the last two years Fight for Children has focused on strengthening early childhood education and supporting children so that they have a path to success.  He pointed out that Washington, D.C. is already leading the United States in providing access to education for kids between the ages of three and eight, so now the issue of the quality of learning has become paramount.  “We know that if we are going to eliminate the academic achievement gap we have got to start early,” Mr. Gordon asserted.  “We now have 70 percent of the city’s three year olds and 84 percent of four year olds enrolled in school.  However, research such as The Office of the State Superintendent of Education 2016 report entitled “The State of Pre-K in the District of Columbia” and articles from the think tank New America continue to demonstrate that there is more to be done to improve Pre-K instructional quality in the District.”

Mr. Gordon reminded me that four years ago Fight for Children created their first of many programmatic initiatives with the vision of making “early education in Washington, D.C. the best in the country.”  As part of the recently released three-year strategic plan, the FFC CEO detailed that there are now three areas of concentration for the organization.  “The first,” Mr. Gordon elucidated, “is to improve the quality of instruction taking place in the schools.  Our second aim is to provide specific student supports that will increase the probability of future success.  Our third goal is to build a solid community commitment to early childhood education.”

As far as specific actions that are tied to the realization of these targets, Mr. Gordon provided examples including ongoing improvement in the quality and impact of programs like Joe’s Champs, providing highly targeted interventions directly for students where they are in their schools, exploring opportunities for high quality summer learning experiences, and advocating for the continued support of early childhood education from the community.

One of Fight For Children’s longest running programs, Joe’s Champs, has already had a tremendous impact.  Since inception in 2013, more than 30 schools have taken advantage of the program which includes 55 educational partners who have received 80 hours a year of professional development and coaching.  There are currently 14 schools enrolled in Joe’s Champs including traditional, charter, and private schools.

As Fight for Children continues to refine its programs including Joe’s Camp’s, the organization plans to conduct a longitudinal study to help measure the impact of these initiatives.  In the fall, Fight for Children will also start a new social issues forum called Coffee Conversation and Controversy which several times a year will tackle challenging issues facing the education sector.

Mr. Gordon is exceptionally proud of his eight-member team that is pushing hard to reform education in the nation’s capital and is not afraid to take risks.  He spoke passionately about the intentional and carefully aligned efforts that are agnostic to school sector be it traditional, charter, or private.  All of this is being done because, in the words of Fight for Children Founder Joseph E. Robert, Jr., “every child, regardless of his or her circumstances, deserves an equal shot at a great education.”

My take, after spending a couple of hours with such an energetic and upbeat individual, is that Fight for Children is in extremely competent hands.

D.C. charter board approves three new schools

A fascinating evening last night as the DC Public Charter School Board held its monthly meeting with a action-packed agenda.   First up was a public hearing regarding consideration of replication of two of our city’s finest charters, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS and Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS.  Each of these schools have extensive student waiting lists for next year’s terms, with Whitlow Stokes at 1,595 pupils and Mundo Verde with 1,335 students wanting admission.  Both charters are rated at Tier 1 on the Performance Management Framework.

The session even included appearances during the public comment period of Theola DuBose, past director of communications for the PCSB, and Ariana Quinones, former PCSB board member and staff member of FOCUS and Fight for Children.

The most interesting part to me of the replication discussion was that both of these schools are feeders into the District of Columbia International PCS.  Therefore, the issue naturally comes up that if these charters begin accepting more students will their scholars eventually gain entrance to DCI when they graduate the fifth grade?  The response from both institutions was similar in that they may work out an arrangement with other schools for acceptance of students if there are no openings at DCI and could consider in the future creating their own middle schools.  There was also hope that DCI would expand in coming years.

The other noticeable aspect of this hearing was that both charters made a point of highlighting that they are no out of school suspension schools, thereby formally institutionalizing the brand-new unwritten requirement first introduced with D.C. Prep PCS this month that charters must have exceedingly low out of school student suspension rates to be candidates to open new campuses.

Elsie Whitlow Stokes will have no problem being approved to add 400 pupils to its current 350 student body in the 2018 to 2019 school year, especially since it wants its new campus for bilingual education to be in Ward 7 or 8.  The story is not the same with Mundo Verde, which seeks to add 600 students to its current enrollment of 635 during the 2019 to 2020 term in a building on 8th Street, N.E.  More than a dozen parents testified that the expansion plans for this school was coming too soon with complaints that there was high teacher turnover occurring at the charter, although the school stated that it has a retention rate of over 80 percent.  They also contended that the school had just reached its current maximum enrollment this year, and therefore it was premature in its relatively short six year history to grow to another site.  The negative statements resulted in spurring PCSB executive director Scott Pearson to interject a couple of times in the discussion to point out Mundo Verde’s impressive track record.

In the past I would say that Mundo Verde would be approved for replication because it meets most of the charter board’s criteria for expansion, but based upon the D.C. Prep experience I’m now not so sure.

Next on the agenda was the approval of new charter school applications.  Here I was surprised with the results.  First, it was announced that CyberTech High School’s bid had been withdrawn.  I thought this school would not be approved.  Also, as I had anticipated, the Adult Career Technical Education Public Charter School was denied a charter.  Digital Pioneers Academy Public Charter School was given the green light which I had felt would happen.  The Family Place was also approved, a school that my heart wanted to be approved to open but whose application I thought had some weaknesses.  North Star College Preparatory Academy for Boys was given a charter despite the PCSB staff’s concerns that research has not shown benefits of having an all male school.

Two schools that I thought would be granted charters were not.   The board members liked the idea of the Waldorf approach of the Washington School of Arts and Academics PCS, but expressed that starting with this pedagogy in high school was too late.  The shocker to me was the denial of Citizen of the World’s application.  Apparently, board members whom had visited the other national campuses of this experienced operator were not overly impressed  with what they saw.

Congratulations to those charters that were approved to open in the 2018 to 2019 school year.

D.C. school Chancellor admits money does not increase school academic quality

Yesterday, the D.C. council’s education committee under chairman David Grosso voted to increase the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula by 2.38 percent as part of the city’s fiscal 2018 budget.  The move is significant because Mayor Bowser proposed just 1.5 percent more in per pupil spending after an Office of State Superintendent of Education task force that included many leaders in our local charter school movement recommended a 3.5 percent jump.  There was a broad boisterous outcry from members of the public when Ms. Bowser released her planned allocation of education dollars.

Except from her new D.C.P.S. Chancellor.  Antwan Wilson stated that he was fine with the money he was to receive, and yesterday, in an article by the Washington Post’s Alejandra Matos,

His words are actually a breath of fresh air.  The Chancellor must be recalling the fine work of the Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson, who, before he passed away in last year, loved to show the graph below to anyone who would listen.  The chart clearly illustrates that while the money spent on public education has grown exponentially over time reading and math test scores have remained flat.

At last week’s FOCUS Gala, Mayor Bowser announced a one-time bump for the UPSFF to 2.0 percent.  Now the Council has gone beyond her suggestion in pumping another $12.5 million into her $105 million hike.  Look for the full Council to easily approve the new number.  This change comes on top of a 2.2 percent growth of the charter school facility allotment to $3,193 per pupil.

The 2017 FOCUS Gala

Last Thursday evening my wife Michele and I had the absolute pleasure of attending the annual Friends of Choice in Urban Schools Gala.  The event, held at the LongView Gallery, commemorated 21 years of charter schools first operating in the District of Columbia.  Upgraded from prior anniversaries, the agenda began with a policy forum entitled “Proof Point City:  How Healthy Competition Has Benefited All Public School Students in D.C.”  The panel discussion was facilitated by David Osborne, of the Progressive Policy Institute, and included Josephine Baker, the former executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board; Ward 7 Councilmember and former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray; George Parker, former president of the Washington Teachers’ Union; and Scott Pearson, the executive director of the PCSB.

Mr. Osborne did an admirable job leading the conversation.  The most interesting comments came from Mr. Parker.  He revealed that his support for school choice had become more positive over time.  He recalled an occasion when he spoke to a middle school class and at the end of his talk a student asked him what the head of a teachers’ union did.  Mr. Parker answered that he made sure that schools had the best teachers and that facilities had the resources they needed to provide a quality education.  He stated that after the lecture a pupil came up and gave him a hug.  He asked the young girl why she had approached him.  She commented it was because he had said that he was making sure she had great teachers.  Mr. Parker admitted that on the way home in his car he realized he was a hoax because he had just spent $10,000 arbitrating in support of keeping a teacher’s job who in no way should have been in the classroom.

There were so many of my heroes gathered in this space that I lost count.  I spoke to Susan Schaeffler, the founder and CEO of KIPP DC PCS; Jessica Wodatch, founder and executive director of Two Rivers PCS; Linda Moore, founder of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS; Jennifer Niles, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education and founder of E.L. Haynes PCS; Marquita Alexander, head of Washington Yu Ying PCS; Donald Hense, the founder and chairman of Friendship PCS; Joe Smith, co-founder and CEO of Eagle Academy PCS; and Dr. Marco Clark; founder and CEO of Richard Wright PCS whose school’s six members of the instrumental ensemble entertained the overflow crowd. Also in attendance was Malcolm Peabody, the founder of FOCUS who had just been inducted into the National Charter School Hall of Fame.  The common theme among all of these guests was the unbelievably energetic and supportive job Irene Holtzman is doing in her role as the executive director of FOCUS.

The formal part of the program included three new inductees into the D.C. Charter School Hall of Fame.  Irasema Salcido, the founder of the Cesar Chavez PCS’s for Public Policy, tried to bring the attendees back to what is was like when she first opened her school twenty years ago.  Please don’t ever underestimate what Ms. Salcido did for public education.  After her first year when she started with about 75 high school freshman, she held back 75 percent of her students because they were not ready to advance academically to the next grade.  Nothing had ever been done like this in the nation’s capital.  Previously, kids were socially promoted all of the way to graduation.  This petit woman who came to the United States as a teenager speaking no English sent shock waves across our town and our nation.

Cassandra Pinkney was also inducted on this night.  This is someone I never had the delight of meeting who passed away suddenly in 2016.  But I have visited Eagle Academy, the charter she co-founded along with Mr. Smith, and was blown away by the work in early childhood education being done there.  Mr. Smith recollected that when Ms. Pinkney a couple of decades ago first began discussing providing universal access to school for three and four-year olds no one had ever considered such a idea.  It was therefore highly appropriate that as part of the panel discussion Mr. Gray had stated that the introduction of universal preschool when he was the city’s chief executive was one of the achievements for which he was most proud.  Mr. Smith also informed us that Eagle Academy was the first charter in the city to accept students with the highest level four special education disabilities.

But the absolute highlight for me were the words of Robert Cane, the former FOCUS executive director who was the third D.C. Charter School Hall of Fame inductee.  He reminded all of us gathered together as to why there is a FOCUS in the first place, which is namely to protect the autonomy of charter schools.  He passionately observed:

“Our charter school law gives school leaders the ability, if they’re able, to provide a good education to their students.  It gives the school leadership, and no one else, the right to decide on the school’s staffing; to choose and manage its curriculum and instructional methods; to decide how to spend the school’s money; and to set all school and student policies.

These are your rights as school leaders.  And, like other rights, they have to be fought for, day in and day out, because no one but you and your advocates cares about them.  To everyone else they’re just an impediment to the achievement of their policy objectives, few of which mirror yours.

In spite of our best efforts, during the years I was executive director these rights were significantly eroded.  And as you know, the effort to erode them continues today.  Just recently, for example, the Public Charter School Board, in violation of the law and its own policies, prevented one of our top performing schools from serving more kids because of its suspension rate.  And a new version of the Language Access Act, which we thought we had defeated three years ago, is back in even more egregious form.  This kind of stuff goes on all the time.

The point I want to make here is that it doesn’t matter how you feel about student suspension or the importance of having a language access coordinator who speaks Spanish.  What is important is that each one of these governmental actions, if brought to fruition, further eats away at your fundamental right to run your school as you see fit.  And if you can’t run your school as you see fit, you’re not running a charter school.  So keep fighting.

Finally, let me urge you to be wary of those who promote the notion that “collaboration” with the other sector on such things as admissions and other important school policies represents the way forward to better schools.  No proof of this thesis is offered; what’s more, most of the people urging collaboration have a long history of seeking to achieve goals that have nothing to do with preserving your ability to run a good school. Quite the opposite.

The truth, perhaps a sad one, is that we didn’t get here by collaborating with anybody; we got here by working day in and day out to provide good schooling to DC kids, and, to the best of our ability, guarding the freedoms that make it possible, against all odds, to do so.  Continuing on this path is the only way forward.”

This celebration, in all of its glory, rededicated ourselves to following Mr. Cane’s advice.

D.C. charter board comes to its senses and decides not to revoke LAYCCA PCS charter

Late yesterday afternoon, the DC Public Charter School Board voted at a special meeting six to one to allow the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy Public Charter School to continue operating under a new set of conditions, most of them tied to results of the Adult Education Performance Management Framework.  Only board member Rick Cruz cast his ballot against the measure, arguing that the school failed to meet several of the goals contained in its charter.

There were a number of common themes around last night’s discussion.  All board members thanked the school and the PCSB staff for their exceedingly hard work around the issue of charter revocation that first surfaced during the five year review of LAYCCA in January of this year.  There was also a lot of whining.  They complained that the school should have come to the PCSB quicker when it realized that based upon the low academic preparation of its student body, the original charter goals were unrealistic.  There were assertions that the systems relied upon by the charter for administrative tracking of data were weak.  The members also found that many of the targets were subjective and therefore open to interpretation.

The most interesting remarks came from Sara Mead.  She chastised the board for accepting the school’s goals in the first place because they were unclear and vague.  She also made the point that while there is a tremendous need in the nation’s capital to meet the needs of adult learners, she is not quite sure that attempts to provide these services fit “naturally” into the adult charter school model.  She cautioned the board about approving other charter applications that seek to educate a similar population of students.  Dovetailing nicely on her statement, board member Steve Bumbaugh pointed out that there is evidence that those enrolled at LAYCCA have shown academic improvement, especially in the area of reading.  He concluded that in light of the “multiple risk factors” of pupils LAYCCA is serving, “this is no small matter.”

In the end the PCSB made the correct decision and one that was predicted here.  As I wrote last month:

“The Youth Center is serving adult students with an average education on a sixth grade level.  This is the average.  Almost all of those enrolled have faced tremendous obstacles throughout their lives from drug addiction, homelessness, poverty, and incarceration.  Needless to say, these are not individuals from typical two-parent households.  Then what this school does, and I have no idea how they do this, is they take these disadvantaged people and put them back together.  The charter demonstrated that many attendees are able to gain years of learning under their watch.  As was stated yesterday evening, Frederick Douglass remarked that, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”  But somehow, in consistent irrefutable evidence presented by the staff and the board of directors, fixing broken human beings is exactly what this charter is accomplishing.”

E.L. Hayne PCS’s sixth annual Toast to Transformation

I simply love going to events where the organizing body has taken steps to improve its fine performance from the year before.  So it was with the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School’s sixth annual Toast to Transformation held as it traditionally has been at the LongView Gallery.  Here’s just a snippet of one of the positive changes: when guests arrived they were serenaded by 14 members of the school’s  steel drum band set up on the sidewalk in front of the gallery.  Bystanders passing by together with visitors to the D.C. Convention Center across the street immediately began taking videos with their cell phones of the festivities.  As participants entered the space, students lined up to welcome everyone to the party with firm handshakes and a copy of the night’s program.

Food is an important ingredient to a successful evening and in this area attendees were not about to go hungry.  Besides the appetizers being circulated and cheeseburger and crab cake sliders, there were portable taco carts boasting either shrimp or short ribs.  Important note for anyone wanting to keep my wife Michele and I coming back to a gathering:  arrange for the taco cart.

But this gala was really about the scholars, and so soon after arriving elementary school students did a fine rendition of portions of the musical “The Lion King.”  Shortly after this performance I met Jennifer Arevalo, a E.L. Haynes senior who is planning on attending Old Dominion University in the fall.  She informed me, and it was as if I was speaking to an adult who had already spent years in the professional work world, that she has been enrolled at Haynes since the sixth grade.  I thought this would be a perfect individual to ask as to whether she liked the school.  “I’ve loved it,” she answered without hesitation with a gigantic smile lighting up her face.  I just had to inquire as to the reason for her conclusion.  Ms. Arevalo explained that the instructors are extremely supportive.  She stated that she had taken A.P. calculus and the teacher provided office hours for assistance with the material before and after school and on Saturdays and Sundays. She added that it was left up to the students to initiate consultations with the teacher during those hours in order to encourage them to learn to take responsibility for their education.

“Let me give you an another example,” Ms. Arevalo said.  “During the eighth grade I was having difficulty getting to school on time each day and it was negatively impacting my grades.  A teacher noticed and decided to help me.  She picked me up every morning at my house so I would be in my seat when the first class begun.”  This is when tears started flowing from my eyes.

It was time for the formal program so the packed audience gathered in the back of the room in front of the stage.  We were first entertained with a highly energetic and perfectly synchronized routine by the high school step team that had formed only a year ago.  Then we received welcoming remarks from Hilary Darilek, the E.L. Haynes Chief Executive Officer.  She mentioned that she has been in her role for 18 months.  I found it impossible to believe that she has been in this position that long.  But someone who had no difficulty with this information was D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, who of course was the founder of this charter school and was its long-time executive director.  I was standing right next to Ms. Niles, and I could see from her expression that she could not be more proud of the strong positive trajectory of this well-respected academic institution.

Honored at the celebration was John King, Jr., who is now the president and C.E.O. of The Education Trust, and was recently the U.S. Secretary of Education.  I have to admit that before this gathering I knew little about Mr. King.  But after he spoke I understood completely why he was selected by President Obama for this role.

Mr. King explained that our country is at an important point in its history for the quality of opportunity for its kids.  He stated that many may want to turn away from the crucial role of public education.  But he stated that a majority of pupils attending our public schools are now minorities.  He warned we will weaken our democracy if we fail to support underserved African Americans and Latinos.

Mr. King related that his mother passed away when he was eight years old and in the fourth grade.  His father had an non-diagnosed early form of Alzheimer’s Disease who died when he was twelve.  Mr. King recalled that in the absence of his parents school was the centerpiece of his life.  He pointed out that his public school teachers invested in him and gave him hope for the future.

Mr. King observed that we must be champions for public education and champions for equity.  The former Education Secretary implored those standing before him to act with a sense of urgency to close the academic achievement gap demonstrated by affluent students scoring at the 74 percent proficiency rate and those living in poverty coming in at 11 percent for the same statistic.  Mr. King asserted boldly that “we all ought to have our hair on fire” regarding this disparity.

You might think that the atmosphere could not have become anymore energized after Mr. King’s words but in this case you would be mistaken.  Immediately following the speech a nine year old elementary student named Rein, backed up by the elementary school choir, gave about as moving a vocal performance as I have seen as she sang the song “Rise Up.”

The presentations came to an end with remarks by Abigail Smith, the E.L. Haynes board chair, parent trustee, and former D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education, who was ecstatic to reveal that she has a child who is a member of the steel drum band.  I ran into Ms. Darilek as guests resumed their conversations and I asked her what she was excited about regarding the 2017 Toast to Transformation.  “I’m just so pleased to have had John King here,” she beamed.  “The ideas he stands for as far as striving to support diversity and equity in public education is exactly what E.L. Haynes PCS is all about.”  From this day’s proceedings it would be impossible to come away believing anything else.

Five applications for new D.C. charters; two should open

Last Monday evening over at Friendship PCS’s Armstrong Campus, the DC Public Charter School Board heard presentations from five schools that wish to open in the 2018 to 2019 school year.  Two of these are ready to join the local movement.  Let’s quickly go through the list.

The Adult Career Technical Education Public Charter School wants to provide students “ages of 16-24, [an] academic and career technical education that leads to high school credentials, postsecondary training, and career paths to productive and economically sound lifestyles.”  When the board was listening to the representatives from the school, red flags were obviously raised in their minds regarding the recent experience with the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy PCS in which this charter school that also serves adults found that its population of students was much further behind academically than anticipated.  I was less than satisfied when this applicant answered how it would address a similar student body so I don’t believe the charter will be approved.

Citizens of the World Public Charter School proposes to open two campuses that will initially serve pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade students, but will eventually go through high school.  It should definitely be allowed to do just as it plans.  The charter is actually an experienced operator with existing schools in Kansas City, New York, and Los Angeles.  The founders for the D.C. campus spent four years on the ground working with stakeholders on adapting their model to local conditions.  It was one of the best applications I have seen in a long time.

CyberTech High School Public Charter School’s application calls for instructing 400 students in Ward 5 to provide them with the technical training to work in the information technology profession.  The discussion around the dais focused on the concept of mindfulness that will be woven throughout the curriculum.  While the emphasis on this approach seemed well understood by the founders, along with their desire to open in one particular Ward in the city, the overall structure of the curriculum did not.  This charter should go back to the drawing board to base its school on a model that is already working well academically in another locality.

Digital Pioneers Academy Public Charter School would open in Ward 7 or 8 as a middle and high school initially enrolling 360 students in grades six through eight in its first three years of operation.  This application of a charter that would teach computer science knocked it out of the park.  In fact, the board was openly complimentary about the proposed program.  Perhaps all you really need to know is that one member of the founding group is Justin Cohen.  I first met Mr. Cohen when he was DCPS’s director of portfolio management under Michelle Rhee.  I was speaking to him about bringing an art infused curriculum to the traditional school system when I was board chair of the William E. Doar, Jr PCS for the Performing Arts.  He went on to form his own nonprofit that was centered on school turnarounds.   Mr. Cohen wrote much of Digital Pioneer’s highly detailed application.  He is an extremely impressive individual. However, I don’t want to take anything away from the experience of the other representatives of the school that were equally talented.  If a group of people want to study how to open a new charter, they should study this proposal.

The final applicant for the evening was The Family Place Public Charter School.  This charter would provide adult literacy education to immigrants to this country, primarily those coming from Central America.  I have to say I was fascinated by this proposal. It turns out that The Family Place has been around since 1980.  It was founded by Dr. Ann Barnet, a pediatrician practicing at Children’s Hospital.  It is currently serving 700 families a year from its headquarters on 16th Street, N.W. providing adult education in a two-generational model.  It strives to “meet the students where they are” while at the same time offering wraparound services to keep the grownups in school.  This support may come in the form of meals, social services, and childcare up to the age of five.

My heart wants The Family Place to be approved due to its tremendous mission and the work that it is already doing, but my head says that the application needs some additional refinement.  The charter would co-exist with the original organization, and I believe further delineation is needed to create solid lines between the responsibilities of each entity.  In addition, the charter established a goal of having 50 percent of its 150 students take the pre- and post-ESL exam, while the group’s track record over the past several years has been an average of 63 percent of its students reaching this milestone.  I hope that The Family Place will re-apply next year.

So between this meeting and the last of new school applications, I count three new charters being approved:  Washington School of Arts and Academics PCS, Citizens of the World PCS, and Digital Pioneers Academy PCS.  This would give a 43 percent acceptance rate, which is consistent with the overall past PCSB track record.

Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS’s 17th Annual Shining Star Gala

Last Thursday evening my wife Michele and I had the great pleasure of attending the 17th annual Shining Star Gala at Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS entitled “Going the Extra Mile.”  For us the honor of joining this ceremony is a highlight of the year.  Let me explain the reasons we love this event as much as we do.

If you have never been to Thurgood Marshall the structure itself, the old Nichols Avenue School, is beautiful in its classic form.  It perfectly foretells the academic rigor taking place in the classrooms.  But you don’t have to guess what is going on in this walls.  Banners hung from the ceiling give the story away with phrases such as “100% of our students accepted to college,” and “93 percent enroll within 1 year of graduating.”  You still don’t get the idea?  Then all you have to do is refer to one of the placards adoring the cocktail tables spread around the hallways.  “90% of students are promoted to the next grade.”  “80% of students reside in Wards 7 & 8.” “75% of our faculty and staff have graduate degrees and teachers have an average of 6.5 years of teaching experience.”  “82% of graduates from 2009 to 2015 are currently enrolled.”

I quickly ran into Richard Pohlman, the school’s executive director.  I asked him what he was excited about this year.  He answered without hesitation.  “I’m excited about everything.  The students and teachers are what really impress me,” Mr. Pohlman replied.  “In 2017 Thurgood Marshall had its first Washington Post Teacher of the Year nomination with Tara Allen, one of our extremely skilled math teachers.  We continue to have 100 percent college acceptance with students attending 85 colleges across the country including institutions such as New York University, the University of Virginia, and Spelman College.  We have an alumni program that helps remove barriers to students completing their post-secondary education.”

When you attend the gala there are student representatives positioned throughout the facility to assist guests in navigating through the celebration.  There are a couple of ways to approach the program.  Guests can pick one of the classrooms to experience the various student demonstrations such as the Stem fair; English language arts highlighting the school’s legal curriculum, an introduction to Spanish instruction, or our favorite from last year, the social studies room where student scholars debate issues of the day.  Alternatively, you could decide to organize your time based upon the classroom buffet station selections which on this evening included Indian, Asian, Italian, or my preference, the gourmet sliders where I found miniature New England lobster rolls.  But as a reporter on this day, I concentrated on the academics.

I received directions from Jazmyne Bradford, an extremely articulate eleventh grader.  She has attended TMA since the ninth grade and loves the school because of the faculty that Ms. Bradford explained to me “helps me reach my goals and aspirations.”  She wants to go into arts media and entertainment when she graduates college, and is looking to attend either Full Sail University or McNally College of Music due to her chosen major.

Between the passed appetizers I wandered into the English room where I spoke to eleventh grader Donovan Raymond, another highly impressive eleventh grader who came to the charter last year.  He discussed with me the book, “A Gathering of Old Men,” by Ernest Gaines.  After providing me with a quick synopsis of the plot, Mr. Raymond asserted that the work was assigned as an example of “how fiction can be utilized to give voice to the voiceless.”

In the hallway I ran into Irene Holtzman, the FOCUS executive director.  She informed me that she is glad to be here at TMA and exceptionally excited about her organization’s annual gala that is coming up next week.  Next to her was Matt Schorr, a tenth and twelfth grade geometry and statics instructor who teaches an honors geometry course.  He is completing his first year at Thurgood Marshall and is highly enthusiastic about the school.  He detailed that the students are what makes this place great and he is moved by the amount of support he receives from the administration.  Mr. Schorr introduced me to Anthony James, one of his tenth grade students.  Mr. James thinks the world of Mr. Schorr because he knows that this teacher wants him to succeed.  Mr. James plans to become a brain surgeon after attending UCLA.  His future career, he explained, is being driven by his interest in geometry.

The event has two parts.  After the classroom demonstrations attendees are asked to transfer into the gymnasium for dessert and other refreshments.  As part of the formal ceremony, Mr. Pohlman presented the Warrior Award to retiring board chair George Brown.  The glossy professional brochure that is provided to guests details that Mr. Brown “has excelled in both the private and public sectors as he has sought to promote and ensure fair and equitable housing opportunities. . . George is probably best described by one of his latest partners-in-crime, Lou Durden, who says ‘He has a fantastic sense of humor – and he zeros in on the ridiculous; he is smart in about ten different ways; and he has a terrific sense of place – he knows where he is and how he fits, whether he can see the space or not.’”

Sitting next to me at the table was Sanjay Mitchell, the charter’s director of college and alumni programs.  He casually let me know that TMA’s seniors have earned approximately $8.5 million in scholarships this year which includes one Posse Scholarship.  He leads student through a discovery process of selecting five colleges that they may be interested in attending beginning in their junior year.  Mr. Mitchell commented that “We try to identify the schools that are going to nurture these young people as individuals.”  From my time spent at TMA, it is clear that this is the goal of every adult in the building.

Erratic action by the D.C. charter board against D.C. Prep

After listening to the two new charter school applications at last week’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board I retired for the night.  After all, there was nothing particularly noteworthy on the agenda, only a few administrative matters that I was certain would sail through the approval process as has been the meticulously orchestrated routine in the past.

But then members of our local charter movement began contacting me.  “Did you see what happened at the charter board meeting regarding D.C. Prep?”  This was not a mundane question.  These individuals were upset.  So I decided to watch the video.  I then understood the reasons behind their highly emotional reactions.

D.C. Prep PCS was requesting three charter amendments.  They were “1) an enrollment ceiling increase of 846 students from its current ceiling of 2,056 students by SY 2019-2020, to 2,912 students by SY 2024-2025; 2) a two-part program replication to open a new elementary campus by school year (“SY”) 2018-2019, and a new middle school campus (“Anacostia Middle”) by SY 2020-2021; and 3) to relocate its existing Anacostia Elementary School to a new, permanent location at 1409 V Street, SE in Ward 8, beginning in SY 2017-2018.”

The PCSB staff wholeheartedly recommended that the board approve these changes.  The report regarding the proposed amendments contained the following unambiguous language:

“Founded in 2003, DC Prep PCS is one of the top performing networks of charter schools in the District, has met its goals and academic achievement expectations at both its 5- year and 10-year reviews, and has been Tier 1 since the inception of DC PCSB’s Performance Management Framework. Notably, some of the school’s greatest strengths are its high academic achievement, its willingness to serve all students—especially those from underserved communities, and its strong infrastructure that provides invaluable professional development and leadership training for staff.”

In fact, the school met nine out of ten criteria for replication according to the DC PCSB Charter Agreement Amendment Guidelines, missing the mark on only one because it has not yet identified permanent locations for its proposed Anacostia middle school and the new Ward 7 or 8 elementary school.

The PCSB staff also pointed out that despite having five campuses, D.C. Prep currently has 683 students on its wait-list.  These pupils are most likely all from low-income families.

So as I suspected, everything was in place for a regular approval of a charter amendment.  But the situation quickly became strange.  First, without explanation, board member Saba Bireda recused herself from the vote.  Then when the session opened for questions board member Steve Bumbaugh asked about the high proportion of out-of-school suspensions occurring at this charter management organization, inquiring as to whether the suspensions are “a mechanism for managing the school.”  It was then board chairman Dr. Darren Woodruff’s turn to pick up the same theme.  He indicated that at Anacostia Elementary the out-of-school suspension rate this school year is 6.9 percent, with the charter sector average at 3.7 percent.  Dr. Woodruff went on to relate that for students with I.E.P.’s, D.C. Prep has an out-of-school suspension rate of 40 percent.  Pointing to the Edgewood Middle School Campus, the PCSB chair stated that the out-of-school suspension rate this year is 27.9 percent compared to 18 percent last year, with the rate for special education students at 44.9 percent.

The representative present from D.C. Prep, Mr. Raymond Weeden, the school’s senior director of policy and community engagement, was clearly not prepared for this onslaught of criticism of the school’s suspension data.

The amendment regarding the relocation of Anacostia passed without incident.  However, the out-of-school suspension rate at Anacostia was particularly problematic for Dr. Woodruff because he realized that the students being disciplined are Kindergartners.  He opined, “I am struggling mightily to understand the logic behind suspending out-of-school five year olds.  I know that you don’t have a response to that.  But I have been in education for over 30 years and I can’t come up with an explanation that makes sense.  So, I recognize that this is one of our high performing operators but this is an issue that we have hinted at, talked about, and danced around, and we have not seen significant improvement.  I would love to hear anyone from your organization justify a 40 percent suspension rate for five year olds that have disabilities.  That’s the reason I will not vote for the expansion.”

To complete the peculiarity of the proceedings, Ms. Bireda then un-recused herself for the replicate vote.  Apparently, and I’m not understanding the logic behind this, she didn’t believe she should cast a ballot on the relocation of Anacostia elementary because she lives close to the new site.  But the dye was already cast, and therefore following Dr. Woodruff’s passionate remarks the two amendments related to replication failed on four to three votes.

The staff report does comment on D.C. Prep’s suspension rates.  It concludes:

“The school has historically had higher out-of-school suspension rates than comparable schools in the charter sector, however in the past two years these rates have declined considerably. Per its charter amendment application, the LEA is diligently working to decrease its suspension rate over time.  The school reports that it revised its discipline policy to be more lenient regarding the types of infractions that warrant an out-of-school suspension.  Additionally, the school has implemented more strategic efforts to engage parents immediately following behavioral incidents, such as requesting an in-person parent meeting, rather than automatically suspending the student. DC PCSB staff have documented a decrease in the suspension rate at all campuses and in many cases a significant drop in school-wide or subgroup suspensions, though most rates are still above charter averages.”

I have heard Mr. Scott Pearson, the PCSB’s executive director, proudly state on more than one occasion that his group has been highly successful in lowering suspension rates simply by making the information transparent instead of having to rely on rules and regulations.  But now it appears that this approach is being revisited.  We are now seeing, without notice, modifications to the criteria under which a school can expand, a division between staff recommendations and the actions of the board, and an intrusion of the PCSB into out-of-school suspension policies, an area not covered under the School Reform Act.

Unfortunately for D.C. Prep, it was the first charter to learn of the sea change.